Games for Learning?

People like games.  People also like learning — mostly.  And of course adults like it especially when their kids learn.  Many valiant attempts have been made to use games to teach kids or adults, but with few real, intentional successes.  This is largely an unknown art, and one where when learning does occur, it seems almost accidental.

For example I learned about the geography of the Caribbean, I’m abashed to say, by way too many hours spent on the old Pirates! game; and my son learned a surprising amount of history by playing Age of Empires.  Many people have fond memories of Oregon Trail, and this often comes up in discussions of “games used for education,” but still this area has languished rather than flourished.

Why is it so difficult to make games for learning?  Is it the topics we’re choosing, or a too-pedantic approach, or something else?  I don’t have any solid answers on this one, and would love to hear others’ opinions.  What do you think?

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9 Comments on “Games for Learning?”


  1. My grandson, relatively shy and a great fan of an online game (World of Warcraft?), told me that what he had learned about teams and co-operation in playing with strangers online saved him when he got to University and had to do teams projects and presentations (Law) as part of the course. “I’d have had no idea how to manage without that. You get to know very quickly who os going to pull their weight, who’s flaky, and how to deal with the tricky people.”

    That seemed like very useful learning to me, and well worth the time he’d spent playing!

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  2. onlinealchemy Says:

    Hey Joanna. Good example about social learning from MMOGs.

    Now imagine if designers actually made such games with group dynamics (beyond tank, healer, DPS, etc.) in mind. How do you form a group and lead it? How do you step down without the group falling apart? How do you effectively follow someone else’s leadership?

    Important questions that I think MMOGs have a unique capacity to answer.

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  3. Mike,

    I have to agree on Age of Empires – my son peppered me with questions about the Saracens until I allowed him to play Assassin’s Creed. Then it was about the Knight’s Templar.

    The problem isn’t that games that teach are hard to make, the problem is that they aren’t meant to be games first and learning tools second.

    Both of my children spent their first 7 years in the Montessori program of schooling. A substantial portion of ages 2-6 was spent “playing games” in their minds. When my then 3-year old learned to be the shopkeeper in “Corner Store” he was elated! Being the shopkeeper mean he had to count change. They played with a big doll house as well – it had zippers and laces to tie, rooms that had to be cleaned, and shoes that had to be organized by color, shape and owner.

    They were playing games but they were learning. They simply didn’t see it that way.

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  4. Mike Sellers Says:

    Kelly, one of the areas I’m interested in is in teaching civics via gameplay — the equivalent of “learning to count change” for adults. Many adults have no real experience with leadership, negotiation, making policy decisions, etc. Existing guild structures in games provide an early, essentially tribal level of this… but we can do a lot more.

    You’re right though, this has to be “play” first.

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  5. First thing on the list? Start the kids playing games much much earlier. My oldest was 10 months old using a kids ball (BIG trackball) instead of a mouse as to alleviate the necessity of dexterity beyond the elbow.

    My guild guided him through quests at the age of 5, before he could type more than a few words. And, we went on “special” quests of his design – usually that meant hunting – but he ran them.

    It has to be second nature.

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  6. Dona Says:

    Hi Mike —

    Is it possible that people thing that “games for learning” is not lucrative — or perceived as such?

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  7. Mike Sellers Says:

    Yeah, if you emphasize the *learning* part, unfortunately there’s a perception of additional risk, lower profit. Making them games first — but without neglecting learning/teaching opportunities along the way — seems to be the way to go. Still tough to do.

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  8. david sellers Says:

    Is there also a perception from academics and teachers that learning does not take place as well in games as in a classroom? “Teaching as though not taught” is still good advice, in my humble opinion. (Anyone know where that quote comes from?)

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  9. Allan Hill Says:

    It reminds me of Ch. 17 of the Tao de Ching, David. Off hand I can’t find a translation that fits the teaching nuance.

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